Over the years journaling has become a daily habit and discipline for me. Basically, I make it a point to write something every single day, however brief or scattered. Here are seven quick reasons why I journal:
(1) to keep a record of life’s journey. I want to relive great and funny moments, and not forget the humbling, painful events of life. Pete Hamill: “The diarist has one essential goal: to freeze time… This day will never come again, but here, in this diary, I will have it forever.” Andi Ashworth: “With a journal in hand, we have a notebook in which to be a student of life.”
(2) to have a tangible account of God’s blessings. Close to the reason above, I don’t want to be like Israel and “forget” God and all He’s done! One of the beauties of corporate worship is the coming together of God’s people to recite what God has done. D. A. Carson reminds us, “Believers who spend no time reviewing and pondering in their minds what God has done, whether they are alone and reading their Bibles or joining with other believers in corporate adoration, should not be surprised if they rarely sense that God is near” (For the Love of God, vol. 1 [Wheaton: Crossway, 1998), May 22). Journaling is but another means of tangibly recording God’s unwarranted grace in my life.
(3) to serve as a reminder of the long-term sanctification process. I need a constant reminder that I don’t become “holy” overnight — it takes time and holy sweat (cf. Phil. 2:12, 13; 1 Tim. 4:15)! Journaling serves as a mirror: it reminds me of resolutions I’ve made and broken, of how desperate I am in need of God’s enabling grace to obey and honor him.
(4) to aid me in prayer and meditation. After reading two or three pages, Nicholas Carr admits, “I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle”(“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic, July 1, 2008). Journaling allows to me to slow down and focus my thoughts, to unplug and disconnect as I pray and meditate on Scripture.
(5) to practice the writing craft. There’s no better way to improve as a writer than by writing. Plain and simple.
(6) to keep a collection of odds and ends. I am able to save quotes, articles, even undeveloped thoughts, and use them for a future paper or sermon. Truthfully, in recent weeks I’ve shifted this benefit on to Evernote where I’m able to efficiently and quickly save blog posts, articles, and quotes I come across. However, journaling still is my favorite means of keeping a collection of odds and ends of my own writing. I can track my thinking, see how it develops over time, and have the benefit of thinking on paper. John Piper, summarizing Augustine, says it well: “I count myself as one of the number of those who learn as they write and write as they learn.”
(7) to be an enduring gift to posterity. I want to tell “my story” and in my own words, to challenge and instruct my children and grandchildren. As Donald Whitney encourages, journaling over a lifetime ought to have the goal of “build[ing] a monument to God’s faithfulness.” He adds this: “[L]ong after you’ve made your last entry, it’s also the one most likely to introduce your great-grandchildren to your life and faith and to influence them for Christ’s sake.” (Donald S. Whitney, Simplify Your Spiritual Life: Spiritual Disciplines for the Overwhelmed [Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2003], 95.)
And yet, there are times when we should not journal. D. A. Carson, in his devotional commentary For the Love of God, offers this wise (and convicting!) word:
How self-deceived we humans are when it comes to matters religious. So many things that start off as incentives to repentance and godliness develop into vicious idols. What starts as an aid to holiness ends up as the triple trap of legalism, self-righteousness, and superstition. So it was with the bronze snake in the wilderness. Although it was ordered and used by God (Num. 21:4–9), it became such a religious nonsense in later times that Hezekiah destroyed it (2 Kings 18:4).
So it sometimes is with other forms of religious observance or spiritual discipline. One may with fine purpose and good reason start “journaling” as a discipline that breeds honesty and self-examination, but it can easily slide into the triple trap:
(a) in your mind you so establish journaling as the clearest evidence of personal growth and loyalty to Christ that you look down your nose at those who do not commit themselves to the same discipline, and pat yourself on the back every day that you maintain the practice (legalism);
(b) you begin to think that only the most mature saints keep spiritual journals, so you qualify—and you know quite a few who do not (self-righteousness);
(c) you begin to think that there is something in the act itself, or in the paper, or in the writing, that is a necessary means of grace, a special channel of divine pleasure or truth (superstition).
That is the time to throw away your journal.